The Humble Tomatoes That Were Once Blamed For Black Magic

Could you imagine picking up that simple and familiar red fruit (yes, it’s technically a fruit, biology is one our side for this argument), and believing that it was the source of all evil? It might seem like a ridiculous proposition to us today, but in the 18th century across Europe and North America, people believed just that. They were thought to be poisonous and even the source of witchcraft and wizardry – and not the kind that you’d associate with Harry Potter.

The journey of the tomato from villain to kitchen staple can be traced back to the Andean region of South America, where it was first cultivated by the Incas. It was then brought over to Europe in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. At first, it was grown for ornamental purposes, with people admiring its bright colours and unique shape. But soon, people began to realise that the tomato was also a tasty and nutritious food.

However, the tomato's rise to culinary stardom was not without its challenges. For one thing, it was not an immediate hit with everyone. Some people found its taste and texture unappealing. But the tomato's biggest hurdle was the unfounded belief that it was poisonous.  This belief had its roots in a number of different factors. For one thing, the tomato belongs to the nightshade family of plants, which also includes bell peppers, potatoes, and eggplants. Some of these plants are known to be toxic, and people assumed that the tomato must be poisonous as well.

Unfortunately, there may have been some truth to this because in Europe in the 1700s tomatoes got the dubiously fairytale nickname “the poison apple”, since many nobles would find themselves sick after consuming them. Though the only obvious suspect to doctors at the time were tomatoes, it was actually their plates that were the problem. Most dishes of the time were made of pewter – which was then an alloy of tin and lead. And when the natural acids of the tomato reacted with the plate, it resulted in lead poisoning and the unintentional besmirchment of the innocent tomato.

Another factor was the tomato's bright red colour, which some people associated with blood. This made them uneasy, and they assumed that anything that looked like blood must be dangerous.  But perhaps the biggest factor in the tomato's bad reputation was its association with witchcraft and black magic. During the 18th century, many people believed in the existence of witches and demons, and they were afraid of anything that might be associated with these dark forces.

One of the ways in which tomatoes became associated with witchcraft was through their scientific name, Solanum lycopersicum. The first part of this name, Solanum, comes from the Latin word solanum, which means "nightshade." This association with the nightshade family was already more than enough to make some people suspicious of the tomato.

Compounded by the second part of the name, lycopersicum, and the tomato's fate was truly sealed. This word comes from the Greek words lykos, meaning "wolf," and persicum, meaning "peach." This strange combination of words led some people to believe that the tomato was a wolf peach, a plant that was said to have the power to summon werewolves.

According to this belief, witches would use the tomato as a key ingredient in their magical potions, which they used to summon werewolves and other dark creatures. This idea was reinforced by a number of popular stories and legends, which depicted witches using tomatoes to cast spells and work their dark magic.

As ridiculous as these beliefs may seem to us today, they were taken very seriously at the time. People were genuinely afraid of the tomato, and they went to great lengths to avoid it. Some even went so far as to refuse to touch or handle tomatoes, for fear that they might be cursed.

Fortunately, over time, people began to realise that the tomato was not, in fact, poisonous or demonic. As more and more people began to eat and enjoy tomatoes, their reputation began to improve. In the 19th century, tomatoes became a staple ingredient in many Italian and Spanish dishes, and they quickly spread to other parts of Europe and the Americas.

Today, of course, the tomato is one of the most popular and beloved fruits in the world. It's hard to imagine that such a humble fruit could have once been so feared and reviled. But the tomato's journey from pariah to superstar is a testament to the power of public opinion and the long way we've come in understanding the world around us.